GPS for Hiking: what type to use and how
Everyone has used a GPS before; just think of all the times when you didn’t know the way to a restaurant or shop, or when you wanted to find the quickest way to a friend's house.
GPS is a tool that allows you to find your way around and take the right route to your destination. Given its nature, GPS is a tool that is not only useful for everyday situations, but also for trekking, an activity where orientation is fundamental and where the risk of getting lost is greater given that you often walk along unknown, remote and unfrequented paths.
What is the purpose of a GPS for hiking?
GPS is primarily a satellite tracking system, which means that you can pinpoint your position wherever you are. However, GPS devices do not only perform this function but also offer other significant advantages when it comes to hiking:
- Know your exact coordinates
- View maps and routes
- Keep track of the distance travelled
- Monitor your walking time and speed
- Indicate points of interest on the map
- Know your altitude and elevation changes
- Use of a compass
How does a GPS for hiking work?
GPS for hiking is based on satellite positioning, a system that uses satellite networks to determine the exact position of a receiver on Earth. The GPS device is, in fact, a receiver and operates like an antenna, receiving signals in the form of radio waves from orbiting satellites. In order to provide an accurate position, the GPS receiver must successfully connect to 4 different satellites, so that the position of the device can be determined in real time.
As mentioned above, positioning is just one of the many functions that a hiking GPS offers. It is a real computer that supports different types of maps and is able to process routes and calculate useful data related to your route. A precise and comprehensive tool, it is also lightweight and easy to carry.
As far as radio signal reception is concerned, it is worth bearing in mind that there are different satellite networks established in different countries, the most widely used of which are GPS (United States), Glonass (Russia) and Galileo (Europe). Usually, GPS receivers are compatible with the main satellite networks, but you should take this into account before purchasing a GPS so that you do not end up without a signal during an excursion.
It is also good to keep in mind that there may be some limitations that can affect the satellite signal and reduce the accuracy of the positioning. If you are standing in the narrow alleyways of a city or between very tall buildings, the GPS receiver may not be able to capture the signal from 4 different satellites, so the position provided by the device may be very approximate. Similarly, you may find yourself in tunnels or in passages between two rock walls during a trek in the mountains, in which case the radio signal may be weak, so it is advisable to check the route when you have a strong signal.
Which GPS should I choose for hiking?
There are different types of GPS for hiking, each with their own features and functions. For example, GPS devices may vary in size, battery and screen, or they may offer internet connection options or the ability to import previously recorded GPS trails. We have listed the different types of GPS for hiking below, highlighting their advantages and disadvantages so you can work out which device best suits your needs.
Smartphones are undoubtedly the most common device equipped with GPS and can be used as GPS for hiking thanks to specific apps, which we have discussed in another article in our blog (The best hiking apps, according to Garmont).
The main advantage of using a smartphone as a GPS is definitely the convenience of having everything in one device, with no need to buy more equipment. On the other hand, it should be noted that using a GPS puts a strain on the battery of smartphones, meaning that they may run out of power during the hike. Many smartphones also have difficulty functioning in low temperatures and can be damaged by moisture and dust.
Using a smartphone as a GPS is recommended for beginners, but it is important to monitor the device's battery as this is the only way to contact the emergency services in the event of an accident.
The majority of smartwatches and sportswatches are also equipped with GPS and can therefore be used as GPS devices for hiking.
Smartwatches have become increasingly popular in recent years and have evolved to meet the needs of users. There are simpler versions that can perform basic fitness functions, such as recording speed and distance or heart rate; but there are also more comprehensive models with advanced features, such as the ability to record altitude, blood pressure, temperature and the ability to upload maps and navigate routes.
The advantages of a smartwatch include its lightness, convenience and suitability for use in everyday life. However, the battery may not be sufficient for intensive use or long excursions. In addition, these devices, which generally have small screens, do not always support the display of maps and routes, which means that a smartphone or map is required.
Using a smartwatch as a GPS on the wrist for hiking is recommended with basic versions for beginners and more comprehensive models for more experienced users. There is a wide price range, with smartwatches available from €70 up to €600.
- Amazfit T-Rex Pro
- Suunto 9 Peak
- Garmin Instinct Solar
Devices designed specifically to provide GPS for hiking include handhelds. These are handheld devices, equipped with a screen for displaying maps and designed to withstand even the harshest conditions.
The advantages of handheld GPS devices include their resistance to low temperatures and shocks, the range of features that are useful for hiking and the ability to follow routes from the device's screen. Negative aspects include the price, which is on average fairly high for a product that is slowly being phased out, and the weight, which makes them heavier than other devices.
Handhelds for hiking are recommended for experienced users who are used to navigating in the mountains. The price range is from €200 to €700.
- Garmin eTrex Touch 35
- Garmin Montana 700i
- TwoNav Cross
These devices are designed to provide increased security and to communicate with other devices even in places where the signal is weak or absent.
Satellite messengers are small, remain connected to the satellite network and are able to send messages and SOS signals when needed. You can also connect these portable devices to your smartphone and follow your route on maps. A monthly or annual subscription is required to be able to use satellite messengers.
The use of satellite messengers is recommended for all users as it can be essential in case of emergencies in isolated or remote areas. Prices range from €150 to €500. Satellite subscriptions range from €15 to €75 per month.
- Spot X
- InReach Explorer+
When it comes to safety, you should always choose the right footwear for the type of hike you are planning. For a demanding high-altitude mountain hike, we recommend TOWER 2.0 GTX®, the versatile, lightweight mountaineering boot for those seeking optimum performance without sacrificing comfort.